Egypt, Wary of US, Tries To Assert Arab Interests

As the US appears to lean more toward Israel, Egyptians counter by drawing closer to their Arab neighbors

THROUGH the smog and bustle of this sprawling Arab metropolis, Washington looks more distant than before ... and ever closer to Israel.

``There is a strong undercurrent in government circles here that the United States has let Egypt down,'' says columnist Mohammed Sid Ahmed.

A series of events in the past five months appear to have shifted the focus of Middle East peacemaking away from Cairo and closer to Tel Aviv. ``There is a strong perception here that [US President] Bill Clinton is more likely to listen to the Jewish lobby in the US than to Egypt and the Arab world,'' Mr. Ahmed says.

It is a view that permeates both government circles and the Egyptian intelligentsia and is reflected in an increasingly hostile tone toward the US in the Egyptian media.

First came President Clinton's speech to the Israeli parliament during his October visit to the region. Egypt saw Clinton's emphasis on Israeli security as a clear tilt toward Israel in the delicate balance of Middle East diplomacy.

Then came the strong US backing of Israel's economic outreach in the Middle East and North Africa at the Casablanca, Morocco, economic summit in October and, particularly, the endorsement of Israel's blueprint for a Middle Eastern Development Bank.

The Republican victory in both houses of Congress in November, which led to a spate of talk about cutting US foreign aid, deepened the sense of insecurity and resentment in Cairo.

The Egyptians feel that they have invested more than Israel in efforts to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace. After signing the 1978 Camp David accords setting a framework for peace with Israel, Egypt was shunned by the Arab world until the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a 1993 limited self-rule agreement with Israel and Jordan ended its 48-year state of war with Israel in October.

As the second-largest recipient of US aid after Israel - a reward for signing the Camp David accords - Egypt has a lot to lose, but appears determined to show that it has other options besides being a client-state of the US.

There has seldom been as complete a consensus in Egyptian society as there is for President Hosni Mubarak's steadfast refusal to sign the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - aimed at preventing the expansion of nuclear arms - unless Israel commits itself to a future timetable for doing so.

``The $2 billion annual American aid cannot be used to entice Egypt to unilaterally sign the NPT,'' said a Feb. 2 editorial in the Cairo English language weekly, Al-Ahram. ``It is not as if Arabs will not sign the NPT unless the Western world greases Arab palms.... We in the Arab world would like to think that the days are over when Israel could get away with just about anything.''

By taking an uncompromising stand on the NPT issue, Cairo has struck at a vulnerable nerve in Washington where officials are battling to muster 86 votes necessary to ensure the renewal of the NPT. Egypt's influence in persuading other Arab states to vote in favor of the extension could be crucial in securing a `yes' vote at the NPT conference scheduled for April.

``By taking a strong stand on the nuclear issue, Egypt has been able to reassert its centrality in Arab politics and re-establish the country as the center of Arab coordination,'' wrote Dore Gold, director of the US Foreign and Defense Policy Project, at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in a Jan. 20 article in the Jerusalem Post.

President Mubarak has sent a series of signals to Washington indicating that Egypt's cooperation in regional and international forums can no longer be taken for granted.

Egypt opposed the land lease-back arrangement in the Jordan-Israel accord and endorsed Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's strong objection to it. Then Mubarak blocked the planned formation of a regional security structure for the Mediterranean nations in North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe and raised objections to the continued presence of international peacekeepers in the Sinai Peninsula.

To the surprise of many of its neighbors, in December Egypt applied to join the Maghreb group of nations, which includes Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Without publicly turning against the US, Egypt sought to restore its authority in the Arab world, while seeking new alliances with Europe, Japan, China, and Russia.

``The mood began to change at the Casablanca economic summit last year when Mubarak realized that Israel was trying to penetrate the Arab world and marginalize Egypt,'' says Fahmy Howeidi, columnist for the Cairo daily Al-Ahram.

Mubarak won an important concession from Israel in last week's four-way summit here by agreeing to discuss ways of making the Middle East a ``mutually verifiable'' nuclear-free zone.

``It is still early days, but the Egyptians are to be complimented for some very skillful diplomacy,'' says a European diplomat in Cairo. ``There is no doubt that Mubarak has regained the initiative in the short term.''

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